Czech ousts Spain, qualifying for World Baseball Classic

September 21st, 2022

REGENSBURG, Germany -- In his day job, Martin Schneider fights fires. On Wednesday night, Schneider put out the red-hot Spain bats in the final game of the Regensburg Qualifiers for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, leading the Czech Republic to a 3-1 win that clinched its spot in next spring's World Baseball Classic.

After pitching just a handful of innings this year for Draci Brno in Czech Baseball Extraliga, the country's top baseball league, Schneider -- who has long been the Czech team’s best pitcher and shortstop -- was expected to pitch only in relief in the tournament. But with the Czech team playing in the biggest game in program history, manager Pavel Chadim had a request: Can you start?

Schneider didn’t back down against the powerful Spain lineup, which put up 21 runs against the Czech Republic on Saturday night and nine runs against Great Britain on Tuesday.

"When Pavel asked me, I said, 'Hey, you know me. I'm gonna die out there tomorrow. So, it's up to you. It's your decision,'" Schneider said. "I was ready for it. I was prepared for it. And I did my best."

The right-hander pitched 6 1/3 dominant innings, striking out five batters and walking none. Other than giving up a leadoff double in the first inning to former Major Leaguer Engel Beltre, who came around to score on a sacrifice fly, Schneider was spotless against Spain. The right-hander faced a bases-loaded threat in the fourth inning but escaped by getting Lesther Galvan to ground out to third after falling behind in the count, 3-0.

Schneider replayed the moment when catcher Martin Cervenka came out for a mound visit during the at-bat.

"I was just asking, 'What do you want? I know what to do. I know I need to throw strikes, so get back there,'" Schneider said with a laugh. "On a full count, I was pretty confident with my slider. I threw a slider for a strike and got a ground-ball out. It was good."

A two-run home run by Martin Muzik, who is fifth all time in Extraliga in homers at the tender age of 26, and a solo shot by Marek Chlup provided enough offense. Chlup chipped in on defense, too, throwing out Edison Valerio at the plate in the seventh inning to hold the lead.

"I had two strikes so I was just competing, trying to put the ball in play, put the barrel on the ball," Chlup said about his home run. "I think the pitcher made a little mistake. He left an offspeed pitch up, and I was on it. I knew it was gone, so it was a great feeling. I'm just glad I could help the team win."

Behind a chorus of cheers from a boisterous group of Czech fans, Marek Minarik, who led Extraliga in strikeouts as a pitcher and home runs as a hitter in 2021, relieved Schneider and got the final eight outs of the game, sending the Czech team to its first World Baseball Classic in history.

"They told me I'd close the game. I thought it would be one inning," Minarik said. "But when they [brought me in], I was like, 'Sure, I can do all of it.'"

The win was all the more impressive considering that the Czech team consists entirely of homegrown players who play in Extraliga -- which only plays from Friday through Sunday. Schneider's firefighting job requires him to work 24 hours before getting 48 hours off, meaning that he misses at least one game with his team every week.

"It shows the world that the Czech league overall is competitive, and that we get better, year by year, which I'm very proud of," Chlup said. "Most of the guys have to go to work, and then afterwards show up to practice and show up to games and compete. It takes it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of hard work. That's what makes them very proud."

It’s a disappointing loss for Spain, which was widely regarded as the favorite of the qualifying tournament. But the team never seemed to live up to its billing. Spain narrowly defeated South Africa, 5-4, in the opener, before routing the Czechs on Saturday and losing to Great Britain on Tuesday.

For all the Czech team's success, Chadim knows they may not always win when facing a loaded team like Spain.

"I have a fun joke for just that question" Chadim said. "I answered before tonight that we can beat them in one of five games. And it was the reason why we invited them to an exhibition [series] before the World Baseball Classic [Qualifiers] was three losses. We started with a loss on Saturday. And I think this fifth game would be ours."

The World Baseball Classic begins on March 8, with the Panama Qualifiers starting next week.

"I want to thank everyone because we had a lot of fans all we week," Minarik said. "They had to take days off from their jobs. And it helped us a lot because they were screaming and it was helping us. Even if we were losing by 20, they were cheering 'Czech!'"